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Wednesday January 19, 2011 1:30 AM

Riding The Rookie Roller Coaster

Patrick Patterson proving to be quick study during eventful rookie season

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - The best way to survive life as a first-year player in the NBA? Embrace the inevitable ride on the rookie roller coaster.

It just comes with the territory. There are going to be ups, downs and plenty of moments in between. There will be times when you feel sick to your stomach and want off, and there will be periods during which you hope the ride never ends.

Like everything else in life, how you fare all comes down to finding a way to maintain the proper attitude and perspective. Try to fight it and focus on the negative, you’ll more than likely be miserable the vast majority of the time. Accept it for what it is, however, and do your best to make the most of every peak, valley and unexpected free fall, and you’ll not only be better equipped to handle what comes next, you might even find the experience enjoyable as well.

Perhaps few first-year players can appreciate the aforementioned analogy better than Rockets’ rookie Patrick Patterson. Taken with the No. 14 overall section in the 2010 NBA Draft, the University of Kentucky product promptly introduced himself to Houston fans with a near perfect performance during his summer league debut in Las Vegas. But once the real games began in the fall, he soon found himself racking up a host of DNP-CDs due to a logjam at the Rockets’ power forward position.

Figuring their prized acquisition would benefit more from in-game reps and playing time rather than simply watching from the pine, the Rockets assigned Patterson to their D-League affiliate in Rio Grande Valley in early November. The 21-year-old thrived during his time there, averaging more than 17 points and 9 rebounds per game. So back to the big leagues he went, taking advantage of practice time with the pros until an injury to Chuck Hayes presented a window of opportunity for him to make his mark.

Patterson wasted little time, dropping 15 points and 10 rebounds on the Toronto Raptors during a New Year’s Eve victory. Two nights later he produced another double-digit game on the glass against Portland. And though he certainly experienced his fair share of rookie moments along the way, Patterson displayed a knack for making a positive impact every chance he got. He proved especially potent offensively on the wings, where his midrange jumper bordered on automatic. Such was the case in Atlanta this past Saturday, when Patterson drained three such shots in the span of his first four minutes on the floor.

And that’s when the rookie roller coaster took one of those dips you never see coming.

Hours before the game began, Patterson came down with a bad cough. No big deal he thought. Surely no little cold or flu bug was going to prevent this rock solid, 6-9, 235 pound man from playing. He thought so little of this ailment, in fact, that he didn’t even bother telling anyone how he was feeling. Only the more he ran up and down the court, the harder it became to breathe. During a timeout, Patterson sat down on the bench clutching his chest. That’s when Rockets’ Head Athletic Trainer Keith Jones came over to ask him what was wrong. Minutes later, Patterson was headed to the locker room to get checked out. Come halftime, he was headed to the hospital in an ambulance.

Just like that, in the span of no more than 30 minutes, Patterson went from torching the Hawks to touching off a scare that had the team spooked enough to believe an emergency hospital visit was in order. Even by the typical NBA rookie standards, that’s one heck of a roller coaster ride.

“I was scared because it’s never happened to me before,” says Patterson, reflecting upon the fright he felt that evening. “I’ve never experienced something like that so I was extremely worried because I didn’t know what was going to happen, so luckily I had the training staff and the paramedics there to help.

“It was my chest. It hurt to breathe in and it hurt to expand my chest and I could feel it basically in my lungs. They said it could have been I breathed in something while I was in Atlanta. I could have caught a flu bug right before the game or I could have breathed in something that aggravated my lungs and then I could have made it worse by playing in the cold.”

Much to the relief of all involved, tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary, so Patterson flew back to Houston that night and was even cleared to return to practice Tuesday afternoon, during which time he took part in the entire workout with the team. Competitor that he is, he says he fully intends to do whatever is necessary to convince the club’s medical staff that he’s good to go for Wednesday night’s showdown with the New York Knicks. More than that, however, he’s eager to get back to building upon the positive momentum he established over the last few weeks and expanding upon the skills he’s showcased thus far.

“Right now I feel more comfortable with the pick and pop so I’m trying to get back into that post mode where I’m posting up all the time,” says Patterson, who’s averaging 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, while boasting a sparkling shooting percentage of .653. “I’ve been working on that a lot in practice, just trying to get back to how I was in the D-league posting all the time because I really don’t recall taking too many jump shots in the D-League; I was constantly in the post posting up, making moves and rebounding – that’s what I want to do now if I get the opportunity. I want to try to score and I just need to keep focusing on rebounding and improving my team defense.”

Adapting to the NBA’s complex team defensive schemes is always one of the biggest challenges for any rookie and Patterson admits that the biggest adjustment he’s had to make is getting acclimated to the NBA’s 3-second rule on defense. Instead of camping out in the paint and wreaking havoc along the interior as he did at Kentucky, Patterson is now learning the nuances of flashing in and out of the lane in 2.9 seconds or less, all while keeping track of the dizzying action taking place all around him.

But those subtleties will sink in soon enough. Patterson entered the league with a reputation for possessing a maturity and basketball IQ which belie his years, and the Rockets’ coaches have seen firsthand that those qualities are exactly as advertised.

“He’s got a good feel about himself,” says Rockets’ assistant coach and big man guru Jack Sikma. “When he makes a mistake he’s able to understand what happened and he makes an adjustment. So there’s a real solidness to him right now.

“It comes down to your ability to absorb and I like his ability to absorb things. You’ve got a lot of things taking place on an NBA floor when the game’s going on, a lot of ball movement and that type of thing. So the more time he’s on there, I’m confident he’ll be a really good team defender.

“We’re not going to bury him and he won’t let himself get buried, I’m confident of that.”

Patterson has been through so much already yet the season is only halfway through, meaning, hard as it may be to believe, there are likely even more ups and downs to come. His response: bring it on. He's put in the hard work and preparation to handle whatever comes his way. What's more, he’s shown enough already to reveal that his ultimate trajectory is headed straight up.

So for Patrick Patterson, and the Rockets fans who get to watch him grow, the best thing to do now is just sit back, get comfortable and enjoy the ride.

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